past & present: textile designer vera neumann


Image above: illustration by Julia Rothman

When I emailed Grace and told her that I was thinking of devoting this week’s Past & Present to Vera Neumann, her response was (and I’m quoting here), “VVVVVEEEERRRRRAAA.” So yeah, we might have a wee Vera obsession and since Grace and I are heading to Atlanta on Friday for the Lavish conference — and Atlanta just happens to be the headquarters of the Vera company — it seemed fitting that we take a look at this American designer and entrepreneur.


Image above: Vera in “New Ways with Wallpaper,” Life Magazine, 1958.

Although Vera is known for her iconic scarves that became hugely popular in the 60s (even Marilyn Monroe was a fan — she posed with a Vera scarf in her photo shoot for Vogue just before her death), Vera got her start by creating housewares. One of four children growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, Vera was encouraged to be artistic. Her father would pay her fifty cents to fill a sketchbook! She went to Cooper-Union and the Traphagen School of Design and gravitated toward textile design. She was initially thrilled to get a job straight out of school but balked at being asked to blatantly copy the work of other designers.


Image above: White House Sun Room in 1952, after the reconstruction decorated by Vera (via White House Museum).

Vera quit her design job. And while working as a freelance designer for children’s fabrics and murals, she met her future husband, George Neumann. George came from a textile design family and was incredibly supportive of Vera’s ambitions. After the couple married in 1938, they built a small silkscreen to fit on a kitchen table in their tiny New York apartment. The only things small enough to silkscreen were placemats, so that’s where they started.


Image above: Square Dance Sail Cloth, c. 1945–1955, from the collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

Vera’s transition from housewares to scarves came out of necessity. During World War II, she had difficulty sourcing linen but discovered an abundance of parachute silk at her local army supply store. The well-known Vera logo was created because, as part of the process of silkscreening her paintings onto the scarves, her signature transferred as well. The scarves were an instant success and by the 1970s, Vera’s kitchen table business had grown to a $100 million international business.

CLICK HERE for more Vera (including a mini roundup of fun Vera designs!)


Image above: Vera painting, from The Vera Company.

Not only was Vera a talented designer, but she was also a licensing pioneer. By 1972, her designs were sold in 20,000 stores around the world. With everything from sportswear to housewares, she was arguably the first true lifestyle brand.

The Vera Company continues to see that Vera’s designs make it out into the world and just last year, the company did a fantastic collaboration with Anthropologie. You can also find some great pillows on Etsy made out of graphic Vera scarves. Here are just a few of my favorite Vera items — at the top of my list is the new Vera book by Susan Seid, which would be a fantastic gift if you know any Vera fans. (Hmmmm . . . I think I know what is going under the tree for Grace!)

Image above: 1. Shadow Play Pillowcase, $19.95 (on sale from $68); 2. Lofty Larks Wallpaper, $88; 3. Vera Neumann Striped Napkin Pillow, $38; 4. Vera Brushed Blossom Umbrella, $35; 5. Vera: The Art and Life of an Icon, $23.10; 6. Bertram Chair, Vera Bubbles, $849.95 (on sale from $1,598)


Image above: 1. Vera Buffet, Blue, $5.24; 2. Fruit Bowl, Blue, $5.24; 3. Set of 6 Irish Linen Napkins, $120; 4. Spice Jars, $5.24

barbara

I was just cleaning out my linen closet and found a double bed size flat sheet from 1974..wedding gift.. that I have saved..classic vera with orange and brown print on white background. was thinking of selling it. also have a couple scarves from the 60’s.. how cool is that?

Haley

Thank you for sharing Vera’s story. It’s really encouraging to hear how an artist grew and developed and the path that they chose.

erin

I looove all of my vintage vera scarves that I’ve collected from ebay and vintage shops over the years. I want to be just like her someday!

Neada B.

I love Vera! We’ve had her designs in our family since before I was a twinkle in my mother’s eye! Mom still has one of the first Vera silk scarves–a grey and white neckerchief covered with ladybugs–and then there are the tea towels and the napkins! YAY VERA!!!

Caitlin Kelch

I have seen some amazing Vera products tucked away in my family’s basements so it’s nice to have the background! ALSO fave Julia Rothman illustration ever!!!

LindenLincoln

Fabulous post! Vera seems to be creeping up every where recently and it was great to know a little bit more about her. Thanks!

Melissa

Would be awesome to do a piece on Tammis Keef. Her style was similar but the subject matter of her pieces were more interesting.

ginnybranch stelling

this is so, so awesome! i love vera’s carves and it’s great to learn so much more about her as an artist & designer. way to go amy!

amya

Isn’t it fantastic, Karyn?! I feel so lucky to have Julia’s illustrations as part of this column! xo AmyA

taylor

I love Vera scarves! I work at a thrift store & tend to gravitate towards her colorful designs.

Ashley

Amy, this is such a wonderful and informative post! I feel like I learned so much. I’ve always admired Vera prints, so it’s great to have a bit of the back story. I have a Vera poinsettia runner on my table right now!

Katy

About to name our new baby Vera upon her arrival and it was partly inspired by this woman’s beautiful work!

MaryD

I love the Vera illustration! I highly recommend the Vera book- so inspirational. And my favorite seller of vintage Vera scarves on Etsy is The Lucky Fish, I’ve bought quite a few!

amya

Katy! That’s so cool! Love the name – congratulations on your new addition! :) xo Amy

Gabrielle Begue

Wonderful post! She had the most vivid, whimsical prints. There are LOTS of Vera scarves on ebay. They’re amazing to look through.

sewdotcoe

I’ve been collecting Vera scarves for years now, I thought I was the only one who knew who she was… glad to see I was wrong!!

mixette

That Vera book is going on my xmas wish list (along with the Orla Kiely one) immediately!

2nd-ing the request for a post on Tammis Keefe.

willywaw

I have a set of place mats and napkins that my Mum gave me and was curious about the Vera signature – now I know! I’ve been printing my own work and selling on Etsy so they are an inspiration. The Vera set I have is two shades of turquoise blue, a circle pattern cut in half on a rectangular background.

Emily R.

I’m so glad to see some Vera love. I’ve collected her scarves for years!

kalanicut

I loved hearing the story of Vera. I have a Vera scarf that I picked up at a vintage shop in SoHo a few years ago. Makes it more meaningful now. Thanks so much for sharing her path and art.

kelly

love her work and will love it even more imagining her silk screening placemats at her tiny kitchen table. how inspiring.

pilgrim

ah, so good!! vera is my idol. i inherited lots of her scarves from my grandma and after learning more about her they are doubly precious to me.

n2garden

I admit to inheriting a Vera obsession from my Mother and Grandmother. I had a great Vera beadspread in the 80’s.

Utopia

Thank you for the Vera post!
I’ve always loved her designs, and used to buy up her scarves at estate sales in the early 80’s when folks weren’t hip and cool to what is hip and cool!
Always wondered who she was….thanks for the info on one of my design faves!

lindsaycorr

so thrilled you are celebrating vera
her work is still relevant now
and thanks for sharing my vera scarf pillows on etsy
i can’t bear to see her scarves tucked away in drawers!!! i have so much fun making them into pillows!!!

Rachel M.

Love Vera! I have several of her scarves from the 60s that I found at a local thrift shop–treasures, all of them. :)

christina

reading this post, the style looked familiar, so i checked… sure enough, a vintage scarf that i randomly picked up on etsy for about $10 is signed by Vera. How cool to know the back story of it – thank you!

I love the colors but always feel like it’s a shame to wear it because you can’t see them all — they don’t look quite as cool when it’s knotted around my neck as when it’s folded out and the stripes all peek out and are juxtaposed. Am I doing it wrong? Or maybe I just have to be a little less aesthetically absolutist about it… the scarf is so beautiful spread out, though.

Alexandra

I have never heard of this artist, but I love her attitude. It sounds like the world was black and white until she came along.

Joan

Love the article on Vera
I have a lot of her stuff..Most curious about a sketch I have of a dog that is signed by Vera..Thanks again

aneyefordetail

I had the distinct pleasure of going to Vera’s studio and printing plant in Ossining, NY in the 70’s! I was working in fashion, for a converter, and we did strike offs up there. Of course, at the time it was no big deal…but now I do appreciate that rare opportunity!
It’s so wonderful that her look has come back: there were many years there when no one would wear such colors and designs! The book is on my Christmas list…

kenglish

I’ve collected a few Vera scarves from thrift shops, but had no idea about the real Vera and her story. Thanks so much for the post! It’s nice to have some background info on my treasured finds!

shana

I bought one of her scarves, years ago at a vintage store- I didnt know the story I looked at her signature many times and had never looked her up. She is sooo inspiring especailly for a developing textile designer like me. I love that I learned this, you made my day!!

Andrea Renee Yu

Vera Newman is so inspirational to me. My class took a trip to Atlanta to visit the small company home, where I was able to actually touch the scarves and see some of her original artwork. She had hundreds and hundreds there. It was unbelievable and so inspiring. Thank you for bringing her to attention. Being a textile major, I fill like everyone should know about her and her work :)

Morgan P.

Thank you for posting such lovely photos and info on Vera — I love her!!! Thanks to my mother, I have a tablecloth and two handkerchiefs. And I am constantly on the lookout for more.

Kimiko

Long time reader, first time comment… Thank you Bonnie, Amy and Julia for such a lovely post. This will sound CRAZY, but Vera was my grandmother. It is so wonderful to see and hear how she has touched and inspired so many people. That was truly her inspiration – to paint and offer people a little bit of art in their everyday! And for me – there is nothing better than bragging about my Granny!!

Jane

Dare I admit that I have never heard of Vera?! Thanks that’s what I love about Design Sponge, you can always learn something new.

Ev

Vera also designed tableware, her Island Worcester Collection, from 1963. Bright sunny sunflowers with wide brush strokes. They are very rare to find but there are a pair on Wavesong on Etsy.

Deirdre

The book is beautiful, as is her art.
I am so grateful to have my Vera scarf, given to my by my old college friend, Kimiko.

IVY

COLLECTED VERA FOR YEARS NEVER WORE,NOT SURE OF MY SENSE OF FASHION,HAVE SOLD,GIVEN AWAY,NEVER WILL BE OVER MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH

Bonnie Dee

My sister gave me an apron by vera circa6o’s. The label says wash in hot water only. I am hesitant to do this. Please advise.

Dolly Williams

just discovered your info online, have been wondering if it is possible to find a buyer for my collection. Have been a collector for MANY years, love them, wear them, tell everyone about them, and did I mention LLOOVVEE them! pillow cases, table clothes, placemats, napkins, and many lovely scarves! My name is VERA Grace, and I wear the scarves with the VERA right out front!!! What fun they are! Would be interested in selling, am retired, no longer need to DRESS and perform (designer). Please advise, not savvy about computer sales, located in Rice Lake, WI. (God’s country). Looking forward to hearing from you, I am

Barbara L Nielsen

Thanks so much for your good information on Vera Neumann. I remember her designs vividly and have some of her pieces from those times that still bring a smile. Best wishes!

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